Ashtanga Yoga Branding Stirs Controversy

Ashtanga Yoga, founded by the late and esteemed Sri Krishna Pattabhi Jois, affectionately called Guruji by his students, is famed for its intensity and rigidity. A simmering conflict between an affluent sponsor of Jois’s acclaimed legacy, his successor and grandson Sharath, and longstanding Ashtanga teachers has the community tied in some knots.

The controversy resides in the teaming up of Sonia Tudor Jones, noted philanthropist and long-devoted student of Jois, and the Jois family. Together they aim to codify Guruji’s teachings into “Jois Yoga,” launch a Jois line of clothing, and open a number of boutique-style Jois Yoga studios. Tudor Jones’s intentions are positive, driven by her personal healing experience and desire to spread the practice across the globe. Yet, some old-timers feel the branding and commercialization is a betrayal of Guruji’s lineage. These teachers iterate Guruji’s insistence that yoga was universal and that his yoga be termed Patanjali yoga, not Jois yoga.

Ashtanga was initially taught in intimate settings, where Jois would provide “ferocious” hands-on adjustments and highly challenging, set asana sequences termed “series,” each with progressing difficulty. As Ashtanga became more popular in the US, however, and more American students traveled to India, class sizes ballooned. Some attribute the increased risk for injury in Ashtanga practice to this shift. One of the world’s most advanced practitioners, Chuck Miller, comments “As the Western mind began populating the room, it changed the room.”

From the beginning, the Tudor Joneses’ involvement has raised eyebrows. On Sonia’s first visit to India, they stayed in a special house, where a private tennis court was built for her children, and others felt she received preferential treatment. She increasingly became involved in Guruji’s personal life, helping to find doctors when he was sick and providing financial assistance. When Guruji wanted a shala (yoga studio) built in the Florida Keys, the Tudor-Joneses financed it, and it was opened the following year.

When Guruji passed, his grandson Sharath was designated as his successor. Under Sharath’s leadership, those who are now certified to teach Ashtanga must commit to teaching it precisely as taught, in an effort to preserve the integrity of the lineage. There are also new rules regarding what people have to do to receive “authorization” to teach Ashtanga, even for those previously authorized by Guruji. Some high-profile teachers have mysteriously disappeared from the list of Ashtanga-authorized instructors issued by the Shri K Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute.

At the core of the controversy are the long-time teachers of Ashtanga who have allowed the practice to evolve, in some cases utilizing props or modifications to render the movements more accessible to a deskbound Western audience. These teachers argue that even Jois changed things. Yet such deviance is taboo to traditionalists, including Sonia and Sharath, who are committed to “keeping tradition alive,” even as their emphasis on codification, branding, and large class sizes breaks significantly with how Ashtanga yoga was transmitted from Guruji to disciple for decades.

The move of the Jois family to codify Guruji’s teachings mirrors the propensity for other major yoga traditions to trademark, brand, and market their lineages. In some ways, this story reflects the trajectory by which modern yoga™ represents both the evolution and perceived bastardization of “traditional” forms of yoga. It also captures well the potential risks of a once-intimately transmitted practice intersecting with western cultural norms and consumerism, a la McYoga.

What do you think about the commercialization of yoga in general and of Jois’s teachings specifically?

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